Protesters took to the streets and blocked key roads across Lebanon on Thursday evening over the government’s inclination to impose new taxes, especially a tax on voice calls via internet apps.
The protests first started at downtown Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square following calls on social media before spreading to nearby areas and eventually to regions outside Beirut.
The demonstrators blocked roads in Beirut’s Riad al-Solh, Saifi and Ring areas before heading to several streets in the capital.
Outside Beirut, roads were blocked in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Jdeideh, Khaldeh, Dora, Tripoli, Sidon, Zgharta, Jounieh, Taanayel, Keserwan, Houla, Hermel, al-Beddawi, al-Labweh, al-Dinniyeh, Bhamdoun, Chekka, Riyaq, Nabatieh, Marjeyoun, Barja and Jib Jannine. The old airport road and the Masnaa highway that leads to Syria were also blocked by protesters.
“The people want the downfall of the regime,” the protesters chanted in downtown Beirut.
President Michel Aoun meanwhile decided to convene Cabinet Friday at 2:00 pm at the Baabda Palace, following phone talks with Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Telecommunications Minister Mohammed Choucair for his part said that, at the request of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, he has decided to reverse the decision to slap taxes on calls via internet apps, while noting that Cabinet had unanimously approved the move.
Civil society groups including the You Stink movement which spearheaded the 2015 protests took part in the demos.
The protests in central Beirut involved an incident with the convoy of Education Minister Akram Shehayyeb. Protesters said the minister’s bodyguards opened fire in the air as the convoy was passing in the area.
"We elected them and we will remove them from power," one protester told a local TV station.
Public anger has simmered since parliament passed an austerity budget in July, with the aim of trimming the country's ballooning deficit.
The situation worsened last month after banks and money exchange houses rationed dollar sales, sparking fears of a currency devaluation.
The government is assessing a series of further belt-tightening measures it hopes will rescue the country's ailing economy and secure $11 billion in aid pledged by international donors last year.
And it is expected to announce a series of additional tax hikes in the coming months as part of next year's budget.
On Wednesday, the government approved tax hikes on tobacco products.
Growth in Lebanon has plummeted in the wake of repeated political deadlocks in recent years, compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighboring Syria.
Lebanon's public debt stands at around $86 billion -- higher than 150 percent of GDP -- according to the finance ministry.
Eighty percent of that figure is owed to Lebanon's central bank and local banks.
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